Miss. Jo was her name. She came to us at the start o’ spring term, 1946 when I was 14 years of age. From the very first time I set eyes on her, I felt something. It’s hard to describe, even now, all these years later,
but it was as if she could, somehow, see right inside one’s very soul. She weren’t pretty. No sir. But she weren’t ugly neither. She were sort of plain looking, if’n you get what I mean. But she had hair the colour o’ corn, long and shiny. So shiny ’t’were like looking at the sun. And she were tall and strong , too. Though she had a real stern expression on her face most o’ the time, when she spoke, ’t’were like her voice were made o’ honey, so sweet and gentle did it sound.
The first thing we all found real strange was her knowing all of our names; all 25 of us. We figured that ol’ Danvers, our last teacher, might have left her a list o’ names but how in hell did she know who was who? When we had our break for lunch, that first day, not that me nor Carole, my sister, ever had any lunch to speak of, all we could talk about were our new teacher. All over that grass playground, kids were huddling and if’n you listened into any o’ those conversations, you’d be sure to hear someone talking excitedly ‘bout Miss. Jo.
My sister were a year younger than me but, on account o’ there being only one middle school in Poplarville, Pearl County, back then, we both got taught the same things, like it or not. Course, you’d think that that would make me smarter than her, being older like, but our Carole was sharp as a tack and way cleverer than me. While she paid attention and learnt stuff, my mind was off wandering, thinking ‘bout getting outa that place and down to the creek so’s I could catch us a catfish or two for supper. Even out o’ school, she were always reading one book or another.
We was always hungry. If there’s one abiding memory o’ them times, it’s that gnawing feeling in the pit o’ my stomach that came from never having enough food. Momma did her best but she weren’t too good at sums and, though she worked hard at the drugstore and brought home her pay every Friday, come Tuesday, we, somehow, ended up broke again and I’d be called on to get out my fishing rod and catch us some supper. I didn’t mind none. I loved fishing and, even today, catfish is my favourite food but it woulda been kind o’ nice to have something to eat during the day. Sometimes, Carole would come with me and, while I cast a line, she would stick her nose in her Britannica. Boy, that girl sure loved her books.
Friday was our favourite night o’ the week. Momma would come home with a grocery bag full o’ goodies and we would eat ’til we couldn’t hold no more. Looking back, it woulda made more sense to eat sensible on a Friday and save something for later in the week but Momma would encourage us to get stuck in and we was just too young and selfish not to. I think it were on account o’ Momma feeling guilty ‘bout our going without so often that she liked to treat us once a week.
Our Daddy was away in another country, fighting a war that we didn’t know too much about. Every now and then, we’d hear something from another kid at school but we didn’t have no radio and I never saw, let alone read, a newspaper ’til I were 17 years old. Now and then, Momma would say that so and so had had a telegram and it would make her cry and need to lie down. I never did know what that meant exactly but Carole told me that, as long as Momma never got a telegram, it meant Daddy would be coming home.
It got so’s we just kind o’ forgot that he even existed, leastways I did, ’cept for, now and then, when Momma would make mention of how he never answered any of her letters. Carole helped her write those as Momma’s letters was bad as her sums, yet, that man did not write back a single time. That has to be a record o’ some sorts, I reckon. But it sure in hell summed up what he thought of us back in Poplarville. Later, I got sent to Korea when I was 19 years old but, though writing were never a strongpoint o’ mine, I had promised Carole that I would write every week and I made damn sure to keep my word.
Anyhow, I was talking ‘bout Miss. Jo and the day she arrived at our school. It weren’t even a school as such -more like a schoolroom, there being just the one big room. Like I were saying, all we could do on that lunch break were talk ‘bout her. Everybody had the same kind o’ feeling though none could actually put it into words -‘cept our Carole. She whispered to me that she thought Miss. Jo were kind o’ saintly.
Momma insisted that we attend church together, as a family, every Sunday and, though I never paid much attention, I picked up enough to know that my sister’s description of our new teacher was inch-perfect. When we returned to class, our suspicions were readily confirmed for Miss. Jo came among us as we sat at our desks and took blueberry muffins from her basket and placed one in front of each of us.
“Eat, children. I baked these especially for you all”.
We didn’t need to be told twice, I’ll tell you that and, boy, that there muffin were the sweetest thing I had ever tasted in my entire life. I fair gulped it down. The strange thing were that, as well as taking away my hunger pangs and leaving me fully satisfied, for the first time in my days of schooling, I actually found myself eager to be taught-and teach us, Miss. Jo did. Somehow, every word she spoke stayed inside o’ my sieve -like head, that day. On the way home, Carole and I laughed and joked about being taught by a saint.
“Petey, that weren’t no blueberry muffin. That were manna from Heaven!” We laughed so hard that our sides ached.
I didn’t feel the need to fish that night, I’ll tell you that much.
The days continued in this vein and I actually found myself looking forward to school. Every afternoon, Miss. o would produce some little item of food for all of us. I said to Carole:
“She must sure be fond o’ baking but I ain’t complaining none”.
“Don’t you see what’s she doing, Petey? We are the only two kids who can’t afford to bring a lunch. She’s
looking out for us. But, so’s it don’t look like charity, she gives food to everybody”.
Like I said, Carole were sharp as a tack and, though I hadn’t thought to look at things that way, I had to admit
that she was spot on, yet again.
Came the day that my best friend, Davey Havitch, didn’t come to school. We figured that, maybe, he had a cold or something but, when he didn’t come back to school at all, even after two weeks, Momma told us that Davey had, in fact, caught polio. We’d heard tell o’ this terrible disease and how you could end up in an iron lung. I had no idea what that was but it sounded something fearful. Momma told me that I had to stay
away from the Havitch house, else I could catch polio myself and, though I missed Davey real bad, I can promise you, that I surely did as I were told, such was my terror. At night, all sorts o’ bad dreams came
my way, thinking ‘bout what that iron lung were like. Carole read ‘bout it in a book and showed me a picture but that there image only served to scare the bejeezus out o’ me even more and wild horses could not have dragged me within a mile o’ the Havitch place. No sir!
You can imagine our surprise then, when, on the third week since he’d last attended, Davey came walking through the door of our classroom, one morning, bright as a button. As I clapped eyes on him, I fair peed my pants and was ready to run for my life ‘cept he, himself, was blocking my way. Right behind him were Miss. Jo.
“Children, you will all be pleased to see Davey back among us. I can assure you that he is perfectly healed and there is nothing to fear”.
If’n she said it, it had to be true but, just the same, I kept my distance until lunch break.
“Davey, what in hell happened? We all thought you were sure to end up in one o’ them iron lung thingies”.
“So was I, Petey. I was real scared. I couldn’t move my legs. Then, when Miss. Jo came to visit, I just started to get better. It’s a miracle, my momma says”.
Carole gave me a sideways look as if to say, I told you so.
“You mean she came to your house? We was all told to stay away”.
“I know. Momma weren’t gonna let her in at first, case she caught it. But I’m sure glad she did”.
“What did she actually do?’ Carole asked.
“Do? She didn’t do nothing. Just sat with me and sang. Real gentle like. It made me sleepy and, when I woke up, my parwliesus had gone”.
“Paralysis, dummy” said Carole.
As if proof were needed, this was it for us. Carole and I were convinced that a Saint walked amongst us.
As the term drew to a close, Miss. Jo told us, one morning, that she would be leaving us and we would have a new teacher next term. The news was devastating for everybody. Funnily enough, not so much for me. I was due to leave and go to higher school and I had been frantically trying to figure out ways to stay-just so I could be near Miss. Jo. Knowing that she wouldn’t, in fact, be here, made my own leaving just that little bit easier but, nevertheless, I felt that a great void would be left in my life.
A day or so afterwards, on the last day of term, our Daddy came home. No warning-just arrived, kit bag on shoulder and drunk as a skunk.
Turned out that he had been de-mobbed in Biloxi and had stayed ‘round there for three weeks but, even then, he hadn’t written a damn word. You’d think, after being away for best part o’ three years, a man would be pleased to see his children but he paid us no attention whatsoever; not even a howdy doo.
He sure were pleased to see Momma though and dragged her off to the bedroom real quick and all sorts o’ strange noises came from that room.
When I returned from the creek, later that night, with an extra catfish for him -not on account of I thought he deserved it but because I didn’t want him taking none o’ mine - he was gone. Momma were real upset and she had bruises all over her arms. Carole put her to bed and told me afterwards that she had more such on the rest o’ her body and bite marks, too. I felt the bile rise in my throat and my heart started pounding something awful. I was a peaceable kind o’ fella but I wanted to hurt the man that had done this to our Momma. Carole calmed me down by saying that, maybe, just maybe, he’d never come back but, later, when I looked in on Momma, I saw his kit bag lying on the floor and I knew that he’d be back.
I couldn’t stop thinking ‘bout that man. Father or not. he was evil and, next day, at school, it were as if Miss. Jo knew exactly what were going through my mind. She paid extra attention to me and even pulled me aside when school was over.
“Petey, don’t worry, things will only get better. You’ll see”.
In truth, she did ease my mind some but, when I got home to find that he’d been back and Momma had fresh bruises, I figured Miss. Jo was wrong this time. I wanted to kill that man who had so violently re-entered our lives but I just grabbed my rod and ran out o’ that house and just kept running to the creek and, all the time I fished, the tears poured from my eyes.
It were when I returned, hours later, to find him home and packing up his stuff, saying that he were leaving and never coming back and Momma pleading with him not to go, that things really came to a head. He struck out at Momma and Carole jumped on his back, causing him to drop his kit bag. He turned and grabbed my little sister and hurled her across the room where she struck her head and lay unconscious. I threw myself at him and started punching but, being just a scrawny boy, I had no effect whatsoever on
this hillbilly who’d been well fed by the government for three years.
He were big, thick and strong and caught me a stinging blow that knocked me flat on my back. It were then that I saw the hand gun sticking out o’ his kit bag. He saw it, too, but I grabbed it afore him.. I had never fired a real gun though Davey had an air rifle that, from time to time, he would loan me and I knew that you just had to aim and pull the trigger.
I guess he knew it, too, for he showed real fear, like the coward he was, to see that there gun pointing directly at him.
I wanted to squeeze that trigger so much, such was my hatred for that man. I wanted him gone and out of our lives forever.
It were then that I felt a sensation on my shoulder. That were the only way I could describe it. A warm sensation that made me stop and turn around and there were Miss. Jo, calm and serene, reaching out for the gun. In an instant, all my rage and anger just melted away as I handed the gun over to my teacher.
“Good boy. Tend to your sister. Good boy”.
I looked over at Carole and saw that she had regained consciousness and was staring wide-eyed at the figure of Miss. Jo. I went across and helped her to her feet and we both watched, astonished, as Miss. Jo told our Daddy to leave and never to come back or she would see that he went to jail for a long time. Though she spoke in that same calm way o’ hers, her tone was severe and Daddy knew she was not to be trifled with. He was outa there like a shot. Miss. Jo then sat Momma down and explained, gently and soothingly, that Daddy was a bad man and that she would be better off without him and the strange thing is that Momma actually listened and agreed.
We all tidied up some and, then, Momma cooked those catfish and Miss. Jo said she’d never eaten such a delicious meal and we all felt like a giant weight had been lifted from our shoulders, Momma, too, and we played games, told stories and laughed and were one happy family.
It were when Miss. Jo were leaving and she told us that we would be alright; our future lives would be happy ones and we would always be in her thoughts, that I realised we would never again see this wonderful teacher. I walked her to the door and I longed to hug her close but daren’t.
“Miss. Jo, do you... have to go?”
“I’m afraid so. I have work to do elsewhere”.
“Miss, are...are... you a...saint?”
She smiled, her hair golden and shiny in the moonlight.
“No, Petey, I’m not a saint but Carole was almost right. My full name is Jophiel. You can look it up, one day”.
She bent and gave me a wonderful hug that sent warm currents coursing through me as I squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them again, she was gone. I ran to the window, where Carole, was looking out
but there were no sign o’ her. She had simply vanished. Carole turned to me.
“One second she was there, Petey, the next she just disappeared. What did she say to you?”
“I asked her if she was a saint, like you said, but she said no. She knew though that you had said it. Isn’t that strange”.
“What else did she say, Petey”.
“She said her name was really Jophiel...and that I should look it up”.
Carole gasped. She ran to her room and returned with her Britannica, turned to a page and pointed. I stared, dumbstruck at the picture o’ the white robed figure with large, white wings and long, golden, shiny hair, the colour o’ corn.
“Jophiel, Petey. Jophiel is an Archangel!. I knew she was from Heaven!” Like I said: my sister was sharp as a tack.